National Poetry Month: Taking a Circuitous Path to Finding Meaning in a Poem

April 2, 2016

Tulips in a garden

Tulips in a garden

Watercolor sketch of tulips in a row

Watercolor sketch of tulips in a row

A favorite book of mine is The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden by Stanley Kunitz and Genine Lentine.  A large part of the book focuses on the poet’s garden in Provincetown on Cape Cod, a garden that he built from scratch and lovingly tended for forty summers.  Needless to say, the garden is full of metaphors, “symbolic of the surprises and ramifications of life itself in all its varied forms.”

One of the tasks in making his garden was choosing the paths through it.  And in this exercise, Kunitz sees its similarity to finding meaning in a poem.  “I avoid straight lines as much as possible,” he says.  “One of my principles is never to try to explain what a poem is about.  That’s a straight line to me.  The path to understanding of the poem is for me always circuitous, it’s a winding path . . . The poem holds its secrets and keeps its tensions by closing out the opportunity to explain.  The fact that it is so secret is what makes it so immediately touching and searching. . . . Art conceals and reveals at the same time.”

Closeup of tulip

Closeup of tulip

With poems and gardens, you can focus on a small part or the big scheme of things.  Both can be enriching experiences:

“Though you learn the meaning of a poem, the sense of a poem, word by word, in the end what you have is a fusion.

In the poem, there is an impulse that moves from line to line, from image to image, but complete revelation is not achieved until the poem arrives at its terminal point, at which time what has been secret before the poem begins to reveal itself, and you really have to mediate on the poem.”

In building his garden, you get the sense that Kunitz was creating a “living poem.”  He says, “I conceived of the garden as a poem in stanzas.  Each terrace contributes to the garden as a whole in the same way each stanza in a poem has a life of its own, and yet is part of a progressive whole as well.

The form provides some degree of repose, letting our mind rest in the comparatively manageable unit of the stanza, or terrace.  Yet there is also a need to move on, to look beyond the stanza, into the poem as a whole.

Often, when you finish reading a poem, the impulse is to revisit the beginning now that you’ve been all the way through it, and then each subsequent trip through the poem is different and colored by having see the whole thing.

Once you have perceived the garden as a whole, the individual tiers of the garden take on a different form because you have seen them both as a part and as a whole.  One of the mysteries of gardening is that the garden reflects the viewer’s own state of being at the time, just as your response to a poem lets you know something about your preoccupations or your susceptibility as you read it.

The garden communicates what it shows to you but you also contribute to the garden some of what you are seeking in terms of your own life, your own state of being.  One reason a garden can speak to you is that it is both its own reality and a manifestation of the interior life of the mind that imagined it in the beginning.”



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